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Dispute over ‘political prisoners’ put Georgia’s electoral reforms in doubt

13 May 2020
Opposition meeting on 13 May 2020. Photo: Tabula

As anti-coronavirus measures in Georgia ease, a dispute over the release of opposition politicians and activists threatens to undermine a deal to reform the electoral system before October’s elections.

Parliamentary opposition parties European Georgia and the United National Movement (UNM) have warned that they will not vote in favour of the reforms unless three imprisoned opposition figures are released.

In a statement on 13 May, a board opposition coalition including European Georgia and UNM blamed Georgian Dream chair Bidzina Ivanishvili for any failure of the reforms.

‘If the political prisoners are not released, Ivanishvili personally, as well as his team, will be fully responsible for another failure to change the electoral system’, the statement said.

The government has denied that there are any political prisoners in Georgia to free or that the releases demanded by the opposition were part of the deal. They have insisted they will not interfere in the affairs of the courts and the Prosecutor's Office. 

On 11 May, Parliamentary Speaker Archil Talakvadze warned it would be the fault of the ‘radical opposition’ if the reforms fail to pass.

The reforms are part of an agreement reached on 8 March between the ruling Georgian Dream Party and a wide spectrum of opposition and anti-government groups. It brought an end to months of political deadlock and street protests that began in June 2019.

The March deal was brokered by Western diplomats in Tbilisi two weeks before the government announced a state of emergency over the COVID-19 outbreak.

In a joint statement on 11 May, the main facilitators of the deal — the US Embassy in Tbilisi, the EU Delegation to Georgia, and the Council of Europe — called on all sides to ‘uphold the letter and spirit of both parts’ of the deal. 

They reiterated that one part of the deal focused on ‘addressing the appearance of political interference in the judicial system’.

Jim Risch, Chair of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, did not mince his words in calling for the ‘release of political prisoners’ in Georgia.

Tinatin Khidasheli, who served as Defence Minister under the Georgian Dream Government from May 2015–August 2016, suggested that by not releasing the three figures the government was deliberately trying to torpedo the electoral reforms.

‘The ultimate aim [for Georgian Dream] is to frame the opposition and paint the failure of the constitutional agreement on the opposition’, Khidasheli told OC Media.

‘This is why it is so important to have sound judgement on the other side’, she said.

Khidasheli, who now heads the Civic IDEA think-tank, argued that regardless of any protests and political boycotts, opposition parties should still show up and vote for the reforms they are in favour of. 

Who are Georgia’s ‘political prisoners’

In a joint statement on 9 March, a day after the agreement was announced, the opposition groups involved in the negotiations urged President Salome Zurabishvili and ‘other state institutions’ to ensure Gigi Ugulava, Irakli Okruashvili, Giorgi Rurua, and Besik Tamliani were freed. 

Two weeks later, Tamliani, the last of the 16 non-politicians charged over a violent protest on 20 June, was released on bail leading to some optimism among government critics.

However, on 23 April, 22 opposition groups published an open letter urging Georgia’s ‘partners and supporters’ to pressure Georgian Dream, after ex-Defence Minister Irakli Okruashvili was sentenced to five years in prison for ‘violence’ during the 20 June protest:

This was followed on 10 February by the sentencing on 10 February of Gigi Ugulava to 38 months in prison for embezzlement. Ugulava is one of the leaders of the largest parliamentary opposition group, European Georgia, and a former Mayor of Tbilisi (2005–2013).

Giorgi Rurua, co-founder of opposition-leaning TV company Mtavari and a vocal supporter of last year’s anti-government protests, was charged for illegal arms possession several days after Georgian Dream voted down their own bill to reform the electoral system last November. Rurua’s latest bid to be freed on bail was rejected again in April.

What’s in the electoral reforms 

Faced with large street protests in the capital Tbilisi in June over the invitation of a Russian MP to address parliament, Georgian Dream bowed to one of the protesters demands promising to introduce a fully-proportional. The party backtracked over the decision in October voting down their own proposals.

The March deal would increase the number of MPs elected proportionally while still retaining some single-member majoritarian constituencies.

Georgia’s current 150-member parliament is composed of 77 proportionally elected MPs and 73 from majoritarian constituencies. The changes would mean 120 MPs would be elected proportionally and 30 would come from majoritarian constituencies.

More proportional systems tend to allow more smaller parties to enter parliament and make it more difficult for a single party to gain a majority of seats.

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